Conferences, Inclusion, and My Axe!

If you’re in the tech industry and attend conferences, you’ve probably heard of the now-infamous PyCon incident in 2013. I encountered this in what I suspect was a fairly common way. Twitter started rumbling about it, and people mentioned it in asides with hushed tones. There was “something” that happened. Initially, I had no idea what they were talking about.

In retrospect, this was surprising because the challenges of diversity and inclusion weren’t new to me. I grew up in a region where I was exposed to frequent and sometimes violent discrimination (which, luckily, rarely targeted me). I was incredibly fortunate because I had a wonderful and safe family and home environment. But outside of my home and other insulated groups I saw the realities of violent discrimination against minorities. Later on, my years at university were not quiet and led me to become increasingly active around LGBTQ issues. A student was attacked and badly injured by his fellow students because he was gay. I was physically threatened and assaulted just for being near people who were dubbed as “different”. Many of my closest friends were threatened or attacked. It made a lasting impression on me. I ended up working closely with a number of my friends to help build up the nascent Gay-Straight Student Alliance which eventually gave rise to my school’s LGBTQ center. We even held a march to try and help rebuild the university’s community.

Despite all of these experiences I didn’t immediately recognize these issues in the tech community, even when they were right in front of me. I have the privilege of appearing to conform to stereotypical “geek” characteristics. I “fit in”. I was never subject to the barrage of inappropriate behavior that others at conferences regularly experience, and I became desensitized to the inappropriate jokes and humor. It was just part of what I perceived as “geek” culture. Many years later when I read about the PyCon incident, I was not surprised at the jokes being made, despite having matured at least a little and finding them a bit inappropriate. But then I read more, including a wonderful blog post on the subject by Amanda Blum. That really helped me become aware that there was more going on here than inappropriate jokes. The jokes were just the symptoms.

From here, I began to research online and talk to people so I could understand the issues better. I was horrified and ashamed. It became clear there was a long history of these incidents. Again, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I had let myself relax with wonderful co-workers (who are all still wonderful!) and a wonderful open source project (which is still wonderful!). I could ignore almost anything within my bubble as not really “that bad” (spoiler: sometimes they were that bad). But outside of my ignorantly blissful bubble, diversity and inclusivity issues in the broader industry and community are causing serious damage to people. I have seen and felt this kind of hate and anger and bigotry in the past. I want no part of it in my life today.

All of this is especially important for me, because I’m a leader in both the C++ community and the LLVM open source project. I attend a lot of conferences around these communities, and I care deeply about improving their diversity and inclusivity. In addition to being the right thing to do, there is even supporting evidence that this has generally positive effects on teams and organizations. What if within my bubble people were being harassed, assaulted, marginalized, or otherwise made to feel unwelcome? How could I help prevent these things from happening in the future, whether again or for the first time? My awareness of diversity and inclusion problems jumped from some “bad jokes” (that were, in reality, much more than that) at PyCon to serious risks facing communities that I participated in and cared deeply about.

I had forgotten so much of my history and lost sight of these issues. So over the past few years, I have worked to be a more active ally within the tech industry for any and all groups who are marginalized or underrepresented. I paid close attention at work and at events. And once I did, I started to see unintentional, small examples everywhere, even inside my bubble! I started to wince every time people described programmers, colleagues, or community members as “guys”. Or when people in meetings would cite the “mythical man month” without clarification for why some deadline wasn’t realistic. I saw Internet memes in a whole new light. Barbie memes are condescending. Even when trying to critique them, they actually reinforce stereotypes. And sometimes shopping is hard. All of these examples, despite having no ill-intent, erode inclusivity.

Noticing wasn’t enough. Eventually, I read another wonderful blog post by Rachel Nabors: “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a Code of Conduct”. This showed me something I could do as an ally. Something as simple as a code of conduct can be powerful. It can be a mechanism to enact change where needed and to broadcast the existence of welcoming and safe spaces.

People in marginalized and underrepresented groups have repeatedly told me they feel uncomfortable attending conferences without codes of conduct. They’ve also written this repeatedly, in no small part inspired by PyCon 2013 and similar incidents. This lack of comfort may well worsen the already lacking diversity of conferences. I’ve even attended conferences with zero female speakers, and so none of them could make this a message or call to action for the conference and community. Well, I am a speaker at these conferences. So this is my attempt to support this endeavor by echoing what Nabors said:

You literally cannot pay me to speak without a Code of Conduct. Or even to attend.

Why? Not because it makes me feel safer, even though it does. If I’m not in charge of a conference, I can’t change their policies directly. What I can do is vote with my feet and take my contributions to conferences and communities where all my wonderful and diverse colleagues will feel safe and welcome. And you are all wonderful and diverse, sometimes in ways I never expected but deeply appreciate. When attending conferences throughout 2016, I told them exactly what I would be doing. I’ve pointed them at the many others who have already taken this stance. If a conference didn’t put a strong and effective code of conduct in place, I wouldn’t be back.

With the conferences and communities where I have a specific leadership role, I feel that it is my responsibility to help bring about this change. So I led an effort to establish a code of conduct for the LLVM community (sadly, still a work in progress, but at least fully covering its conferences as of 2016). I worked closely with the CppCon organizers to convince them that their code of conduct isn’t enough and to replace it with a stronger and more effective version. And the C++Now conference is taking strides to incorporate a strong code of conduct.

Already, I feel better about every community that has made strides adopting and using a code of conduct. I see all kinds of behavior improving. More appropriate jokes are being told, and it turns out they’re just as funny. People are apologizing when they offend others, even when it was an accident and completely unintended. And others feel safer and more comfortable participating.

I am helping, in a small way, to make the tech industry and the open source community become more inclusive, safe, and welcoming for all of you and for myself as well. There is much more to be done, but this seems like a good place to start.

So I say…

“And my axe!”

I want to thank everyone who has helped me over the past years, especially in the C++ and LLVM communities. I could never have undertaken this alone.